Helsinki: My Victory Marathon

The idea of running in Helsinki came up during dinner with a group of running friends on December 31, 2015. We were about to ring in the New Year with a half-marathon that would start at midnight near Zurich, something that probably only running enthusiasts would define as a great start to the year. We were also accompanying our friend, Will, who was setting out on a journey of 52 half-marathons in 52 weeks that night. He pulled out his itinerary and we were considering where we might meet him next. When a 17k run in Helsinki was mentioned, many in the group responded with enthusiasm.

That weekend, we also met a woman from England, who told us about the “Marathon Globetrotters” club. Anyone who has run 5 marathons in 5 different countries would be eligible for provisional membership. I realized that if I ran the Helsinki marathon, which would take place the same day as the 17k race, I would be eligible. And finally, the timing worked out for my life and training, so I committed.

Training went well and as I mentioned in this post, I was beating my personal best times in shorter races during the months preceding the race. My goal was to finish as close to 4:30 as possible this time, perhaps even break it. Yet to build my confidence that this would be possible, I wanted to run a half marathon in under 2:10 and a 10k in under 58:00. In all my years of running, I had never obtained such times, so I knew it would need to step it up a bit. I ran 8 races between March and July and not all of them were successful, but finally on June 19, I ran a hilly half-marathon in 2:06 and on July 3, a 10k in 55:33. My performance in Helsinki would depend on the weather and other factors, but after these experiences, I was confident that it would be possible to break 4:30 as long as I could remain mentally tough over 42.195 kilometers.

Traveling to Helsinki the day before the race was a bit stressful, but since I took the time to pick up my bib on Friday night, I could take it easy on Saturday while waiting to start at 3pm. It rained all morning and from my window, I saw wind ripping through the trees. I have to run in THAT? I knew the route would already be challenging because it was hilly, but with the addition of bad weather, I recognized that I might have to revise my goal and strategy. But not yet, I told myself.

I arrived at the venue, bought a rain poncho and within a few minutes ran into Will. Seeing him gave me a major boost and it was great to pass the last hour of waiting in good company. He would run 17k, continue another 4.1k to complete his weekly half marathon, and then try to join me for a bit when I passed 25k, where I would be starting my second loop.

I was in good spirits and feeling positive at the start. My goal was to complete the first half in 2:10 and then try to not slow down too much during the second half. If I could manage this pace for the first half, I would be quite confident that I could finish the second in under 4:30. Yet, I would also have to adapt to how I was feeling and I didn’t know how the route and weather would affect me. It was raining and still windy when the race started. Yet I felt really good and at the 5k mark, I realized that my pace was spot on. The hills were friendly and I overtook them with ease, but I was less enthusiastic about the wind, which challenged my stride. At 10k, I was still on pace and feeling good. Really good. It was raining harder but I didn’t care.

Pushing forward for the halfway mark, I was still taking it easy, but not too easy. I noticed that there was water everywhere (see the map below) and we crossed over a lot of bridges, which meant more up and down movement. The rain was letting up by this time but I was worried about some knee pain that I had been experiencing in the past months. I started to feel it before 15k, but then it passed after a few more kilometers. My pace remained steady and my half-marathon split was precisely 2:10. I was thrilled!

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And yet I knew that the first half was the easy part. At that point I had to NOT think about the fact that I was only halfway done, but rather stay present in the moment, take one kilometer at a time, and try to keep up my pace. I needed to make it to 25k, where hopefully Will would join me for a bit. My pace remained quite steady and soon I saw the 25k marker approaching. Yet looking to my right and to my left, Will was nowhere in sight. I checked my watch and realized that since I was trying to not be overly optimistic when predicting my time at the start, Will wouldn’t have been expecting me yet. Later I would realize that he had missed me by only a few minutes.

The next few kilometers were a low point for me. The hills confronted me again, and the wind slapped me as I passed by the various bodies of water. I tried to remain fully in the moment, paying attention to my breathing and trying to not be influenced by the muscle pain, which was ever increasing. One kilometer at a time. I knew I was slowing, which was part of the plan, but I was still on target for a sub 4:30 finish. Yet the hardest part was still to come.

It was at around 30k that I started to face the biggest mental challenge. I had been preparing for it and thus remained positive. Just after 33k, the hills that I took on with ease the first time around were back to challenge me on a deeper level. I tried to tackle them with good technique, maintaining my form and not allowing them to overly exert me. The last kilometers were not easy, but the anticipation of finishing in my goal time was driving me forward. Still, one kilometer at a time and I was already calculating my anticipated finish time as I passed each one.

After passing the 40k mark, I wanted to crash through to the end. 41k came soon enough and I knew I would finish around 4:25 if I could manage not to break, even though I was feeling really tired by this time. Could I even accelerate at this point? Then, unexpectedly, I saw Will to my left, but he was focused on his phone. I yelled and waved as I passed and within seconds, he was at my side and then taking a video, which I didn’t completely appreciate in the moment. “See you at the finish!” he said, as I turned to enter the stadium. The last meters were long but finally, I was approaching the arrival. I looked at my watch just before arriving and saw “4:24” but then it changed to “4:25” as I crossed the finish line. My official net time was 4:25:03.

A few minutes later, I saw Will again and after collecting our bags, we “went live” on Facebook to report my arrival to my imaginary fans who were cheering me on from a distance. (In reality, I know that only my dad was actually tracking me live, but hey, that’s still enough to keep me going!)

The race was great and I definitely felt stronger, especially since my finish time represented a 27-minute improvement on my last marathon, which, by the way, was completely flat and in perfect weather. This was the first time that I was able to maintain my goal pace over the course of a full marathon. However, the best part was how I felt afterward. My head was clear, my vision sharp and I had no pain above my shoulders. Compared to previous experiences, it felt like ecstasy! (Or at least my personal definition of ecstasy since I have no real experience.) The feeling continued for the next couple of days. I didn’t care how much my legs hurt, how difficult stairs were or how tired I felt. I simply couldn’t stop smiling because my head felt so good. Over the next two days, I walked another 30k in Helsinki and Tallinn and had energy left to spare. It was a big difference from the last time when I was confined to bed for a day, vomited all night, and felt foggy-minded for weeks.

I reported back to Dr. Stanton and she responded, “Full steam ahead with your life please!” Those words almost brought tears. “Full steam ahead” never felt possible before, especially not after completing a marathon. But now it does, not only in terms of running marathons but also in other areas of life. Frankfurt broke me, but Helsinki proved to be a victory! Hopefully, Hamburg will be next in April 2017. Stay tuned!

Oh, and now I am a Marathon globetrotter!! 😉

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Latvia – Country #40!

Last weekend, I traveled to Riga, Latvia for a conference. Of course, I was happy to reunite with many friends who were also in attendance and meet new people, but I was also a bit ecstatic to visit my 40th country.

It was cold (-15 C or 5 F) and for most of the time, I was comfortably indoors for meetings (ok and I found an indoor gym, there was no way I was going to brave running in that weather). When I did go out, it was usually late in the evening and not an ideal time to see the sights.

The best moments can’t really be shared on this blog, so instead I simply give you a few pictures of the snowy and cold city of Riga:

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Some friends and I had a great evening here one night. A fun place to dine if you find yourself in Riga!

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We lasted only a few minutes in this park as we were so cold, but it was beautiful!

 

We Celebrate the Light

Twenty hours after arriving in Iceland, I was starting to feel enclosed by the darkness and anxious for dawn to finally arrive. I had seen the sunset from the airplane mid-afternoon, but by 10:30am the next day, the night felt far too long. Even when the sun came up, it was a dim light, hushed by the cloudy sky.

That night my friend Johanna and I joined a French couple that we had just met and together we drove out to a lighthouse, sat in the car and looked into the dark, hoping to spot some Northern Lights. We were again surrounded by darkness and not even sure for what we were looking. Would they appear like a shooting star, there and then gone again in the blink of an eye? Would they come in slowly or as a flash of lightning? All we knew was that we were looking for some impressive light display, in whatever form it might appear. We were not successful, so eventually we gave up and drove home.

The next morning, Dec. 26, I again found myself staring into the darkness, even though I had been up for hours. I was on a bus to the Southshore of Iceland and was listening to many interesting stories and anecdotes from our tour guide. Then we passed a small church and cemetery. Each tombstone was lit up with Christmas lights, usually outlining a cross. The tour guide explained that in December, the darkest month of the year, it is a tradition to light up the cemeteries like this. She went on, “Perhaps it appears that we go a bit crazy with the Christmas lights here, but in the midst of so much darkness, at Christmastime, we celebrate the light.”

We celebrate the light. Those words stuck with me for the rest of the journey. My thoughts immediately went back to Paris, which has been stained by dark acts of violence and death in 2015. I will never forget in the days following the attacks, the scenes of hundreds of candles scattered throughout the city of lights helping to illuminate those dark places.

And then I thought again of Christmas, which Icelanders celebrate for two full weeks until Epiphany on January 6. And how Jesus, the person traditionally at the center of this celebration, claimed to be “the light of the world.” Celebrating Christmas is to celebrate this light, even though the destiny for baby Jesus would include a night of such profound darkness that even his closest disciples would flee the scene. The light that followed at his resurrection is a light eternal, a light that Christians celebrate every day of the year.

Yet it is interesting that it takes darkness to recognize the light. Or rather that darkness is the absence of light and that light casts out all darkness. So it makes sense that the darker the darkness, the brighter the light shines, the more it is appreciated, and the more we are even at times desperate for it. In so many ways, 2015 was for me a year of darkness and light, so spending the last few days in Iceland during their celebration of light was ever so fitting.

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Is Beauty Color-coded?

In March I went on an “Artist Trek to India,” with a team of musicians, writers, visual artists, photographers and a dancer. We visited a high school one day and each of us was immediately surrounded by dozens of students. They asked us questions, wanted to feel our skin and hair, and requested that we take pictures of them.

One of these girls grabbed my hand and said, “beautiful” as she stroked it. I took her hand and said, “YOU are beautiful!” She responded, “No. Black!” And she frowned. My heart sank but I looked at her again in the eyes and said, “You are so beautiful. It’s true!”

Another day, in the city of Vijayawada, a couple of girls came running up to me and another team member. “Photo please!” They asked while giggling and posing next to us as their friends stole some photos with their phones.

Um, hello?

But they didn’t care to get our names, they only wanted our pictures. And then they were off as quickly as they had come, not giving us a chance to ask for their names, either.

My team and I attended a relief meeting for Indian people suffering from AIDS. We packed bags of food for them and then introduced ourselves during a short service of singing, a message and prayer. The majority of those in attendance were women, who had most likely contracted this disease from their husbands. The men don’t come because they are too embarrassed. The women come because they are in desperate need of help for themselves and their families.

I finished my introduction by saying, “You are beautiful.” My words fell upon blank faces, but as soon as the translation was pronounced, their reaction was anything but neutral. Some snickered, others shook their heads.

The younger girls received my words with less disdain and rejection. When I grabbed their hand or touched their face or pulled them in for a hug and said, “YOU are beautiful,” it came from the very depths of my being, a message shared in complete sincerity. I wished I could gather all of the women, teenagers and young girls into a big group hug and describe to them more of what I see.

Because truly, these women are stunning!

I returned to Paris and saw the color of humanity like I had never seen it before. Caucasian people seemed especially pale. Oh, right. I’m Caucasian, too. Suddenly for me, human colors were more defined but not in a categorical “white” and “black” way. I find the variety of human color to be beautiful and something that ought to be celebrated.

I wish we could do away with the stereotypes that our world places upon people. Of course, I have also been personally influenced by the way media dictates what makes a woman beautiful. When an ideal is out of my reach, it can be hurtful. And I hate that feeling of not measuring up. But to recognize that I was born to privilege simply because of my skin color makes me uncomfortable. I see it more clearly now than before, and it bothers me deeply. I don’t really know what to do about it. I just know that it is there.

Qatar

When buying an airplane ticket to India a few months ago, I had a difficult decision to make: should I pay $200 less and endure an 8-hour layover at the Doha airport on my return? Normally, it wouldn’t be worth it. But I was tempted by the location of my layover, and the idea of getting out of the airport and exploring a new country during that time. After all, Qatar isn’t a place I frequent regularly, nor one I anticipate visiting anytime soon.

I conducted some preliminary research on possibilities. Would I even be able to leave the airport? I learned that visitors could buy a visa at the airport upon arrival and it seemed that the city center wasn’t too far.

So in the name of “saving money,” I took the ticket with a long layover, even though I knew I might end up spending what I saved on financing my little adventure. A few days before leaving for India, I searched some more, and I made a plan. I would buy a visa upon my early morning arrival, take a taxi to the city center, get breakfast somewhere (hopefully along the coast), take the Doha hop on/hop off bus around the city, and then get a taxi back to the airport. I started to add up the costs and realized that the expense was getting more extravagant than I had anticipated. And yet since I was carrying my violin and laptop, I knew I wouldn’t want to roam the city on foot for hours. So the day before leaving India for my return flight, I decided to google “Doha city tours” just to see if I might come up with a better option. The result was an unexpected surprise: Qatar Airways offers Free City Tours to Transit Passengers.

It looked too good to be true. And why didn’t I see it earlier? Aha – the article was published just last week, when I was already on my way to India. I found the press release on the website of Qatar Airlines but there wasn’t a whole lot of information there. What time were the tours? Would I still have to buy a visa? Was it really free? I figured that it was worth a try. This service appeared to be new, and it seemed official enough.

I was pleasantly surprised on all accounts. I arrived in Doha at 6:30am and quickly found the “Qatar Airways Doha City Tours” counter. They took my passport and boarding pass, registered my information and told me to be back at 7am for a 7:15 departure. Just enough time to use the restroom and get a little cash out of an ATM.

There were only eight of us taking the tour on this cool morning and we were shuttled to the arrivals terminal and given a card to present at immigration. There our passports were stamped with a 24-hour visa and we paid nothing. Then we were escorted out to a comfy mini-bus where we had more than enough room to spread out. We were told we could leave our carry-on items on the bus whenever we stopped; they would be looked after.

An English-speaking guide led us through the city on a nearly 3-hour tour, and in the end we took the same route as the hop on/hop off bus that would have cost me $50 for a one-day pass. We stopped many times along the route to take pictures and walk around. The brisk morning air and opportunity to walk without carrying my luggage helped to combat the fatigue I was feeling from losing a night of sleep. They even provided us with cold bottles of water. Extra points, Qatar Airways!

Doha was impressive. Most of the city has been built in the last couple of decades and the architecture is fascinating. It’s the most modern Arabic country I’ve seen. At the end of the tour, we had 25 minutes to explore the souk (market), which I found to be very chic compared to what I have seen elsewhere. Also more expensive. The dress is different here, too, with men wearing a white thobe (a long white gown) and the women in all black, sporting a shayla (headdress) and abayha (long dress). The coast was especially beautiful, and when I saw people out running it made me feel nostalgic for the Chicago lakefront. Our tour guide also told us that 75 percent of the population in Qatar is made up of ex-pats that have come to work, and only 25 percent is women.

He also told me that these special transit tours have only been operating for a month, and that sometimes no one shows up. However, even if only one person signs up they will run the tour. The most they have had so far is 22 people at a time. They are hoping that it generates more interest. Other passengers told me that they had discovered the tour by chance, as they wandered the airport trying to kill time. I think that Qatar airlines needs to increase their publicity for this service, both on their website and in-flight. Maybe that’s coming. The press release was already a good move, but not everyone researches things like I do.

So, hats off to Qatar Airlines. This tour was perfectly planned for transit passengers with a 5-12 hour layover at the Doha airport. The convenience and ease that they offered would have totally been worth a fee of $50 or more. I felt like a VIP customer when in reality the free tour was available to me because I opted for the ticket that saved me $200. After the tour, I was happy to settle down for two more hours at a coffee shop where I took advantage of the airport’s free Wifi.

If you ever have the opportunity, don’t miss this experience! Thank you Qatar Airways!

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Serbia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy trip to Serbia in July 2010 is easy to write about because to date, it represents the quickest visit that I’ve made to a country.

However, let me inject here that in order to count a country on my list of countries visited, there are certain conditions that need to be fulfilled. For example, an airport stopover doesn’t count unless I actually leave the airport.

My mother and I have an ongoing country-visiting competition between us. She is ahead, but of course, she also has 30 years on me. But a few years ago she was visiting me in Romania and we spent a day in Oradea with my colleagues. When one of my colleagues mentioned that we were only miles away from the Hungary border, my mom got all giddy about the possibility of adding another country to her list. My colleague was all too happy to drive to the border, get our passports stamped, and continue on for about five minutes on a narrow road in Hungary and then turn around.

For me, that’s pushing the rules a bit. It doesn’t really count. At least one purchase needs to be made, and at least some contact with the locals.

But perhaps I’m hypocritical in this assessment because I felt the same giddiness when staying with a friend in Romania very close to the Serbian border. “Can we go to Serbia?” I asked. “Why?” My friend replied. “There’s nothing to see there.” “Just because,” I replied. “I want to see anyway!”

Thankfully, she was up for a quick adventure. We decided to try to squeeze in a visit before I needed to catch a train back to Cluj. So we set out and thankfully, we got through the border with little drama. We spent about a half hour there before turning around. But, to make the visit authentic, we did two important things: we took a picture at the border and we made a purchase. It was hot at the time, so we bought and ate an ice cream. It wasn’t great ice cream, certainly not something to go back for, but I guess you could say we tasted something of the local cuisine.

The most memorable part of the visit, however, was when we got back to the border. On the Serbian side, there was a long wait to get through customs and back into Romania. I have no idea why. But we had a great conversation while waiting, discussing our futures and faith and big decisions. In the end we waited for about two hours, and, consequently, I missed my train back to Cluj. Oh well, it was worth it!

Countries Visited

From the age of eight, I have found myself traveling internationally. I love to travel and I appreciate the many opportunities that I have had to grow by discovering a variety of places, cultures, and people.

I also like to keep track of where I’ve been. Someone encouraged me recently to start writing about all the countries I’ve been to and so I decided to make it a part of my blog. Yikes, this will be a big project! Here I’ve listed the countries I’ve visited by category, and I will continue to update this post as I write about each country and perhaps add more to the list.

Countries lived in for at least a year
U.S.A.
England
France
Romania

Countries visited 5+ times
Germany
Hungary
Morocco
Netherlands
Italy

Countries visited 2-4 times
Austria
Belgium
Canada
Japan
Luxembourg
Madagascar
Norway
Russia
Scotland
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland

Countries visited once
Bulgaria
Cayman Islands
Czech Republic
Denmark
Estonia
Finland
Greece
Haiti
Iceland
India
Ireland
Jamaica
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Mexico
Poland
Qatar
Serbia
South Korea
Turkey
Wales